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The challenge of learning Swedish

Most Swedes speak English, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s great if you’re a first-time visitor to the Swedish capital of Stockholm and can stop almost anyone to ask for directions. But trying to learn Swedish is difficult because you can always revert to English, writes American Charlotte West, who lived in Sweden for seven years.

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Photo: Johnér

Newly arrived

I arrived in Sweden in August 2002 armed with Prisma’s Abridged English-Swedish and Swedish-English Dictionary and an eight-week intensive Swedish course from the University of California at Berkeley behind me. Four years later, the dog-eared dictionary had grammar notes scribbled in the margins and I had become a fluent Swedish speaker, more or less.

The process of learning Swedish was not entirely painless. I once asked my hairdresser if she had time to put ‘flingor’ in my hair. Turns out, the word I really wanted was ‘slingor’, for ‘highlights’. Instead, I had asked her to put breakfast cereal in my hair.

Swedish Word of the Day

A big part of the reason my spoken Swedish got good is that I quickly met Swedish friends who were willing to help me practise. One of our techniques was keeping track of our ‘Swedish Word of the Day’ on a list tacked to the kitchen cupboard.

I came across the list a few months ago while sorting through some old papers. It was fun not only to see how far my Swedish progressed since then, but also because it provided a record of the conversations my friends and I had around the dinner table in our shared flat. The list helped me learn practical vocabulary, including portkod (door code), osthyvel (cheese slicer) and benvärmare (legwarmers).

An insider’s perspective

As a foreigner in Sweden, it’s rare to be in a situation where you are forced to speak Swedish to be understood.

‘Of non-native speakers, Swedes have one of the highest levels of fluency in English, particularly in conversation’, says Bryan Mosey, a British former colleague of mine in Stockholm. ‘It’s what I as a linguist would define as a second rather than a foreign language.’

Despite Swedes’ fluency in English, learning Swedish was one of my goals from the moment I stepped off the plane at Arlanda Airport. Speaking the language of my then host country was the difference between being a perpetual outsider and feeling at home. It was not just being able to order a cup of coffee without the cashier automatically switching to English when she heard my American accent; my environment became comprehensible.

Language learning as cultural insight

‘There’s a process of automation in language learning’, Mosey says. ‘When we start learning a new language, we have to actively think about what we are saying. Gradually, we achieve a level of fluency that requires less effort – perhaps this enhances the perception of being “more at home”.’

‘I know that a lot of English speakers live here a long time without learning Swedish, and you can certainly do that. But learning the language allows one to experience the culture from within.’

Priceless Swedish anecdotes

Speaking Swedish unlocked several personal and professional doors for me. On a personal level, learning a foreign language (and blunders one makes while doing so) is something to which many people can relate. The topic more than once served as an ice breaker when meeting new people – Swedes and other foreigners alike.

The anecdotes are endless… and often priceless. I remember a Swedish flatmate who once said to me and my English friend that his brother in Lapland made ‘blankets’. We both imagined his brother making handcrafted quilts. The guy then explained that his brother worked for an IT company, not for a linen manufacturer and that was how we discovered that the Swedish word for ‘application’ is ‘blankett’. His brother made online questionnaires.

Learning the language was also a good career move. I went on to work on projects translating text from Swedish to English, and as a freelance writer, speaking Swedish allowed me to communicate with interviewees on their own terms.

But I never quite reached perfection. I think it’s physically impossible for my lips to form the right shape to correctly pronounce the Swedish word for seven: sju. It sounds almost like ‘shoe’, but not quite. If I ever get it right, I’ll let you know.


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Last updated: 11 April 2014

Charlotte West

Charlotte West

Charlotte West lived in Stockholm from 2002 to 2009, working as an editor and freelance writer. She now lives in Seattle on the US west coast.